Tuesday, 6 March 2012

21st Century? Skills

Yes, the question mark is in the correct place.  I seriously question the current practice of labelling certain essential skills as being specific to the 21st century.  Jay Matthews, of the Washington Post, makes some good points in his article, "The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills."  The buzz in certain educational circles cites a list of skills that are promoted as essential to learners in the 21st century.    I may not go as far as Matthews in saying that this is a doomed fad, but it does certainly warrant a closer and thoughtful examination.  I would propose that these skills were essential in the 19th century, the 15th century, the 1st century, the 12th century B.C., and I think that by now the reader will have concluded that I am proposing that such skills are actually timeless.
Throughout human history, people have had to engage in critical thinking in order to make decisions affecting every aspect of daily living.  Human beings do not act on instinct.  This is what separates humanity from other animals.  Problem solving is engaged in from a very early age.  Just observe a crawling infant, who cannot yet walk, surmount obstacles and achieve goals.  Collaboration has always been a part of how humans operate.  Villages are not built by individuals, neither do societies develop and function in harmony without collaboration.  Effective communication raises human beings above the "pack mentality" displayed by the canine species.  Innovation has resulted in taking various plant materials and reforming them into clothing rather than having to depend on slaughtering an animal for its skin to cover our own.  Innovation is part of the creative spirit enjoyed by humanity to be able to take a beautiful singing voice and share it with the world through digitization making use of the mathematical binary system.
Modern technology will be replaced by future technology and the technology of the past is often considered quaint or even primitive at best.  Every age had its technology, however we view it from our present position in history.  Each generation had to become technology literate.  People went from scrubbing the family clothing on the rocks by the river to programming an electronic washing machine to carry out the same task.  Communication that was limited to those within hearing distance of one's voice progressed through the development of numerous devices to what we have today.  Less than fifty years ago students were still using pencils and paper to solve complex math problems.  Today a dependency on learning how to use electronic gadgets to solve those same problems exists.  These are only three examples of developments in technology that have required progressive generations to become "literate".
Self-direction has always been the hallmark of a well-balanced and productive human being.  Whenever one is subjected to being told what to do and how to function, productivity and innovation decreases.  The self-directed person thinks critically, is innovative, effectively problem solves, and develops talents to a greater potential.  Robotics should teach us how a person who is not self-directed would function.  A robot is totally subject to outside input and functions only according to the directions provided.  Innovation and creativity is lacking.  Incidentally, that sounds like a worker on an assembly line.  Performing assembly line tasks may be fine for short periods of time interspersed with self-directed tasks, but working on an assembly line on a daily basis for hours on end may actually be dehumanizing.
Global awareness takes an individual beyond self-interest.  With advances in communication and transportation, the sphere around individuals has grown to encompass the whole globe.  This has either increased the individual's sphere or shrunk the globe, depending on one's point of view.  The fact remains that those who have been more successfull than their contemporaries have had a global awareness throughout history.  The difference has been the relative size of the "globe" or sphere that the individual operated within.
Given the aforementioned synopsis and analysis of the so-called '21st Century Skills, I would propose that it has always been incumbent upon educators to integrate development of these skills into the content of the curriculum of the day.  Perhaps there has been a problem with the method of delivery of instruction in our educational institutions.  The move toward single grade classrooms and requiring the lessons to be more entertaining has hampered the development of these skills.  I recall spending a few years in a two room school where the teacher I had taught grades five through eight to fifty students.  All of the skills that are now termed 21st century were certainly encouraged and utilized on a constant basis.  Collaboration, communication, and problem solving were essential components of learning because that one teacher could not possibly spend excessive amounts of time with one grade.  That teacher certainly modelled innovation and used all of the technology available in that era.
I think that educators need to remain balanced and not jump completely onto every new proposal that comes along.  Knowledge content is essential as are the skills that go along with it.  Doing without reason is also unacceptable.  To know 'why' leads to effective use of the skills.  Just imagine what would happen to society if all were trained to use technology to accomplish everything, without the knowledge content or why, and that technology was rendered useless through some natural or man-made occurrence.  That segment of society could not survive.  Balance is essential.

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